Recent highlights from the New Zealand Antarctic Programme


May 2020

From the world’s largest ice shelf, to the depths of Terra Nova Bay and the sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica New Zealand is the government agency responsible for carrying out New Zealand's activities in Antarctica. New Zealand’s Antarctic research programme has a strong focus on how the continent and its ecosystems will be impacted by climate change, and how those changes will influence the rest of the planet. During the 2019/2020 summer field season, ocean-related research supported by Antarctica New Zealand spanned a variety of disciplines and locations.  
Close to Scott Base in McMurdo Sound, scientists studied the interannual variability of sea ice. As an important regulator in global climate, researchers are interested in what the sea ice is doing now, and what it might do in the future. In spring 2019, instruments were deployed in the sea ice to record characteristics such as snow depth and the vertical temperature gradient. Building on 20 years of data collection, this research aims to improve understanding of how ocean processes occurring beneath ice shelves influence sea ice formation.

As well as the physical elements of sea ice, biological components were studied too. A team of researchers investigated how sea ice algae might respond to changing environmental conditions. Using an underwater remotely operated vehicle, the in-situ response of algae to environmental stressors was measured. The team also implemented an under-ice hyperspectral camera run on skis to record images of sea ice microbes to determine abundance and community composition.
At the opposite end of the food chain, scientists studied ocean predators, including Weddell seals, Emperor penguins, Adélie penguins, and killer whales. Research focused on where the animals travel, how deep they dive, and what they are eating. These data will help with understanding how effective the recently established Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (MPA) is.
There were also a number of long-term monitoring surveys carried out during the season, including the annual aerial census of Adélie penguins on Ross Island. High resolution photographs were taken from a helicopter and later analysed to determine the total number of breeding pairs. These aerial surveys began in the 1980s, and the long-term record of Adélie penguin abundance and distribution provides an important baseline for research and monitoring associated with the Ross Sea region MPA.

Later in the season, the annual Antarctic toothfish survey was carried out from aboard the FV San Aotea II, contributing to a record that began in 2012. The results of the survey help with sustainable management of the toothfish fishery as well as informing how effective the Ross Sea region MPA is in terms of achieving its conservation objectives.

Over 1000 kilometres from Scott Base, a team of scientists studying the Ross Ice Shelf were deployed at Siple Coast. This region is home to the grounding line of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where the ice starts to lift off the land and begins to float. Using a hot water drill, a 534 metre deep hole was drilled through this region of the ice shelf for the first time, reaching the wedge-shaped ocean cavity below. A long-term oceanographic mooring was installed to investigate physical properties of the ocean, and marine sediment cores were retrieved to help inform multidisciplinary studies of the stability of the Ross Ice Shelf during past warm periods. In addition, a NASA-funded under-ice robot (Icefin) was deployed through the drill hole to remotely explore the ocean cavity.  A better understanding of ocean processes under the ice shelf will feed into models of ice dynamics and sea level rise projections.

Further north in Terra Nova Bay, a multinational team of New Zealand, Korean and Italian researchers continued a long-term study of sea floor communities. Using remote video cameras and photogrammetric techniques, the scientists gathered data to understand how fast different components of the community will respond to climate change.  Also in Terra Nova Bay, onboard the Korean RV Araon a team worked to recover, download, and then redeploy oceanographic instruments attached to moorings. These instruments record temperature and salinity at various depths, revealing insights into processes associated with the Terra Nova Bay polynya. The polynya is an important area for the production of sea ice, as well as the cold, dense, salty bottom water that plays a key role in global ocean circulation.

Antarctica New Zealand is proud to be supporting world-leading science that is fundamental to improving our understanding of the impact of environmental change in, on, and around Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and the impacts of that change on rest of the world.